Fatigue no excuse for sloppy Australia
It would be logical, and also convenient, to conclude that Australia's dire World Twenty20 campaign was simply a tournament too far. For a team, a management and a selection panel elated but exhausted by earlier achievements in a long summer, the trip to Bangladesh served mainly to delay a deserved homecoming for the likes of David Warner, Brad Haddin, Shane Watson and Darren Lehmann after their exploits against England and South Africa.
But it would also be too easy an out to settle on the explanation of physical and mental fatigue. Plainly, this was Australia's poorest showing at an ICC event in years, maintaining the side's longtime weakness in the shortest of the formats and exhuming some former scars inflicted by spin bowlers on subcontinental pitches. Like the 2010-11 Ashes that hurried along the Argus review, these were defeats to be deplored for how and why they occurred, and the source of some introspection about how Australia continue to struggle in T20.
A campaign in which the team were eliminated before their final pool match began is an even worse result than that of the 2013 Champions Trophy, the event that ended Mickey Arthur's tenure as coach following Warner's misbehaviour off the field and the timid performance of the team on it. There is no question of the Ashes architect Lehmann paying similarly this time around, but he and others would do well to learn from the sharp lessons of three defeats.
First among them is that confidence, hubris and brio can help Australia's players express themselves and perform at their best, but only when allied to a strong sense of hard work and a fastidiousness of preparation. Sloppy was not a word commonly heard when discussing the Test or ODI teams during the summer, but it was on the lips of Lehmann, the captain George Bailey and the national selector John Inverarity following each reverse in Dhaka. As Inverarity surmised:
"Our feelings are of disappointment. We were confident we had arrived at a very good squad, and I do recall it was very well received in the press. Also leading into the T20 World Cup in Bangladesh a number of well-informed pundits had Australia highly fancied. In those first two games against Pakistan and West Indies, we thought we could have won those two games, but there was some sloppiness in all three departments of the game, and we missed out on those two. The performance last night was poor. We're disappointed."
The sloppiness went beyond Australia's performances while batting, bowling and fielding also. James Faulkner's overly belligerent choice of words about West Indies in the lead-up to that match, that would ultimately eliminate Bailey's team, was a reflection not only of overconfidence but also the inability to read how times and circumstances had changed.
Shooting from the lip was a part of Australia's Test match success, and has been a significant factor in Faulkner's own success, but in Bangladesh it suggested a team less concerned with performing than settling scores. West Indies celebrated wildly in response, but took due care to ensure they only did so after the match had been secured. The lazy presumption of victory is often followed by the forfeiting of it.
Australia's selectors can also look back on the team they chose with some degree of regret, having pulled together a squad that appeared strong but ended up looking old, unbalanced and ill-suited to the challenges of the local conditions. This was most evident in the way the team fielded, quite visibly short of the Olympic standards set in Australia and South Africa, and noticeably missing the skills of numerous talented operators.
Partly this was due to time and tide. The national team's best fielders include the captain and T20 retiree Michael Clarke, the Test-matches-only paceman Ryan Harris, and the unavailable Mitchell Johnson. But others were available yet not called upon - Steven Smith would undoubtedly have excelled in Bangladesh much as he did in the Sheffield Shield final, while the athletic Nathan Coulter-Nile languished behind the decidedly less manoeuvrable Doug Bollinger.
"It's true that we haven't fielded well there," Inverarity said. "A number of our better fielders didn't have their best nights in the field either of those who were in the squad. I was talking to [selector on duty] Rod Marsh on the phone in Bangladesh two or three days ago, and he said he'd watched the fielding sessions and they were absolutely brilliant. But in the games we weren't up to our usual standard. Fact."
The deficiencies of Australia's batting were notable, whether it was in a dunderheaded and one-dimensional attempt to slog to victory over Pakistan from a position of strength, or in an unconditional surrender to India's spinners in an ultimately meaningless pool fixture on Sunday night. Fatigue can be partly blamed for this, but it will be disconcerting for their IPL owners to have seen Watson and Warner fail so completely to be influential. The sight of Watson standing his ground after being bowled rather summed up the gap between Australian batting's perception and reality. At least Watson was able to offer a frank assessment in the aftermath.
"It's not the first time the majority of us have played a lot of cricket back-to-back, it's no excuse whatsoever," Watson said. "It's integral to be able to get off to a great start in this tournament or you're out [early] like we were. It's absolutely no excuse whatsoever. I know everyone coming here was extremely excited about being involved in this team. We've got a lot of match-winners in our team with bat and ball but we just haven't been able to put it together unfortunately."
As for the bowlers, the tendency to concede runs in clumps was a recurring one, shredding the confidence of Mitchell Starc and leaving plenty to wonder how much Australia do now rely on Johnson. The attempt to replace him "like for like" with Bollinger as another left-arm paceman did not succeed, while Brad Hogg's inclusion must also be judged a failure. The introduction of James Muirhead was a worthier gamble, but Bailey's 2012 contention that Australia will have to think about encouraging a generation of doosra bowlers for subcontinental duty has only grown in relevance.
For now, the Australians must dress their wounds, finish their tournament neatly and return home for a rest. By the time they next face up to a major challenge - Pakistan in Dubai - it will be beyond any doubt that any staleness from the drawn out exertions of 2013-14 has passed. That tour, with its fixtures covering all three formats, will provide a decent gauge of whether the blind-spots evident in Bangladesh have simply emerged through overwork. If not, they will remain as major obstacles for a team hopeful of rising to far loftier heights than those of two forgettable weeks in Dhaka.
Daniel Brettig is an assistant editor at ESPNcricinfo. He tweets here